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The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
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The Chocolate War (1974)

by Robert Cormier

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Series: Chocolate War (1)

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Summary: Everyone knows that Trinity, an exclusive New England Catholic prep school, is really run by the Vigils, a secret group of students who dole out "assignments" to their fellow students. These assignments are usually disruptive or embarrassing pranks, but nobody dares defy the Vigils, and even the teachers look the other way. Freshman Jerry Renault is still dealing with his mother's death, but all he wants is to get through classes and make the football team. But he soon draws the attention of the Vigils, and is given an assignment: refuse to participate in the mandatory fundraising chocolate sale. This puts him right in the line of fire from the particularly sadistic teacher organizing the sale, so Jerry should be relieved when the Vigils order him to start selling chocolate a few weeks later. But for some reason, Jerry continues to refuse, and that's when the real trouble begins.

Review: I read this for Banned Books Week, as it's been one of the most frequently challenged/banned books almost every year since it came out in the 70s. I can see why this book is assigned - it's a realistic look at bullying/hazing in a boys' school that would provide an interesting springboard for classroom discussion on the topic. It also has aged really well - there's a few bits with hippies in the park that date it, and of course the prices make it obvious the book was written several decades ago ("But no one will buy a candy bar for two whole dollars!!!") - but the situations and the motivations are (sadly) just as applicable today as they were in the 70s. It's also immediately apparent why it's been challenged - there's some frank references to masturbation, although nothing particularly explicit, some violence (the book is about bullying, after all, and some of it is physical bullying), plus it doesn't paint a particularly flattering portrait of authority or Catholic schools. (There's also some "curse words", but of the "crap" and "damn" variety, which still scandalize the characters.) Personally, I don't think any of these things make it inappropriate for high school reading - on the contrary, it presents what I imagine is probably a pretty realistic view into the mind of a high school boy.

But, while I certainly wouldn't ban this book, I also don't know if I would assign it. First, while the references to sex and masturbation didn't bother me in and of themselves, I was put off by the fact that this book almost entirely lacks female characters, and the women that do show up are only there to be ogled and serve as fuel to the boys' masturbatory fantasies. But more than that, I had a problem with the message of the book. Jerry has a "Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?" poster in his locker that serves as a central theme of the book. But by the end, it becomes apparent that Cormier's answer to this question is "No, not unless you want the crap beat unrelentingly out of you." I don't necessarily need my books to have a happy ending, and I realize that the plucky underdog doesn't always win, but I found this book to be pretty bleak and ultimately kind of hopeless. Someone at my book club pointed out that this might be a generational thing, that in 1974 we were at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and maybe the "plucky underdog" mentality wasn't the prevailing attitude at the time, which was an interesting point I hadn't considered. But still, it led to me ultimately not really enjoying the reading experience.

I also wasn't a huge fan of the writing. Cormier's got an excellent way with description, and can craft a beautiful sentence. But the flow of this book was odd, jumping from character to character - mostly Jerry and Archie, the de facto leader of the Vigils, but also a number of secondary characters. This style isn't normally an issue for me, but in this case, whole pages would be given over to the backstory of a newly-introduced narrator… who in a few more pages would disappear, never to be heard from again. Distracting, to say the least. Overall, it was an interesting read, but not one I particularly enjoyed or am ever likely to revisit. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Eh. It's short enough that it's a quick read, and I can see how it would make a good read for a class discussion, but as a read-for-pleasure book, it was not my cup of tea. ( )
  fyrefly98 | Oct 20, 2014 |
This novel used to be standard fare for English classes at schools but it strikes me as about as nihilistic as you can get – more so than, say, ‘Lord of the Flies’. The way Jerry gets so badly beaten by Janza and his gang at the end of the novel is an answer to his poster question ‘Do I dare to disturb the universe’. He’s surrounded by at best ineffectual people like his father and The Goober and at worst by the Archies and Leons of the world. What’s even worse is the relentless way in which Jerry goes under, his only victory the evanescent Pyrrhic one when he refuses to sell the chocolates. Students would have learnt simply of the corruption and sadism in the world from reading this well written but disturbing novel which begins with the hippy telling Jerry he’s ‘middle-aged at fourteen’ and ends with Jerry telling The Goober ‘Don’t disturb the universe’. So, a powerful read but, like ‘Lord of the Flies’, another high school favourite, just because there are boys in it doesn’t mean it’s going to be something you want to give them. ( )
  evening | Aug 30, 2014 |
Short version: Lord of the Flies at Catholic school, done by a master.

Longer version: I really wish I had gotten to read this in high school. I didn't go to a Catholic school, but I did go to "catechism" every Wednesday at the local church school, and I also lived in the author's conservative Massachusetts hometown. The events in this book are all too believable.

This is the story of Jerry, a boy who has recently lost his mother to cancer. His dad is a pharmacist who works all hours, so Jerry is on his own a lot. Jerry starts at 9th grade at a new (parochial) school, tries out for the football team, starts to make friends, etc., and is doing pretty well. He soon learns about the existence of the Vigils, the ruling clique, who assign other students to pull pranks, commit vandalism, etc. Nobody refuses an assignment from the Vigils.

One of the teachers has gotten the school into financial trouble, so now each boy at the school is tasked with selling 50 boxes of chocolate, double the usual number, within a very short time. As a prank, the Vigils tell Jerry to refuse selling for 10 days, which does not go well for him. But it's what happens after that that sets the rest of the book in motion.

Cormier does a wonderful job of getting across what it means to lose a parent. He also succeeds at creating the claustrophobic atmosphere at the school, showing the corruption and brutality of its rulers (teachers and students), and describing Jerry's growing isolation as his friends fade away, one by one. You can't help but root (and fear) for Jerry as he stubbornly does what he thinks is right, against all the norms of the time and place.

Every high school should teach this book. ( )
  Pat_F. | Jul 25, 2014 |
Robert Cormier’s 1974 Young Adult novel, The Chocolate War has become a classic story of corruption and cruelty. The New York Times named it an outstanding book of the year, as did the American Library Association and School Library Journal. I occasionally like to dip into the world of YA literature, and this novel is a perfect reason to do so.

According to his website, Robert Cormier was born and has always lived in Leominster, Massachusetts. He grew up there, went to school there, courted and married there, and raised four children in the house where he and his wife, Connie, still live. "I never intend to live anywhere else," he says. Cormier was a newspaper reporter and columnist for 30 years. He began writing, "in the seventh grade.”

Cormier sets The Chocolate War in Trinity, a private academy for boys. Jerry Renault wants to play football, and he has a poster in his locker, which reads, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Archie holds an important office in a secret society known as the Vigil. Everyone knows about the Vigil and their mostly harmless pranks, but no one talks about it – including the Brothers who run the school. An overly ambitious brother, Sebastian, seizes control of the school, when the headmaster is sick. He launches a grand plan to raise money by selling chocolate bars.

In one passage, Cormier describes one of the classrooms. “Brother Leon was getting ready to put on his show. Jerry knew the symptoms – all the guys knew them. Most of them were freshmen and had been in Leon’s class only a month or so but the teacher’s pattern had already emerged. First, Leon gave them a reading assignment. Then he’d pace up and down, up and down, restless sighing, wandering through the aisles, the blackboard pointer poised in his hand, the pointer he used either like a conductor’s baton or a musketeer’s sword. He’d use the tip to push around a book on a desk or to flick a kid’s necktie, scratching gently down some guy’s back, poking the pointer as if he were a rubbish collector picking his way through the debris of the classroom. One day, the pointer had rested on Jerry’s head for a moment, and then passed on. Unaccountably, Jerry had shivered, as if he had just escaped some terrible fate” (38-39). Do we professors really fall into those predictable routines?

That scene is all too familiar to me. I can still see the rubber-tipped pointer as it smudged the chalk, or came crashing down on the hand of an unwary student whose mind wandered.

The pranks were elaborate, sometimes funny, and usually required late night raids on the school. In one, a timid student, fearful of The Vigil, was ordered to loosen the screws in every desk and chair in one classroom. The student worked diligently, but after four hours, he had barely finished a quarter of the seats. Archie and his gang arrive to help finish the job.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Chocolate War, but I see from the list of “Also by Robert Cormier” that he has a sequel, Beyond the Chocolate War. I think I need to hunt that one down. 5 stars

--Jim, 6/7/14 ( )
  rmckeown | Jun 26, 2014 |
As we mentioned in our class discussion, this could definitely be a classic that is taught to high school students. The dark tone of the book will appeal to teens who are experiencing their own personal battles with peer pressure and conflict with society-at-large. The title might be somewhat misleading for teens, who might not understand that the book has dark, almost dystopian tones throughout the novel. Personally, I found it almost so depressing that I didn't enjoy the book, but this doesn't mean that it is an bad book. On the contrary, there is a lot to say packed into this small novel.
1 vote superlibrarian88 | Jun 7, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Robert Cormierprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Muller, FrankNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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They murdered him.
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In bed once more, Jerry lay without moving, trying to summon sleep. Listening to his father's snores, he thought of how his father was actually sleeping his life away, sleeping even when he was awake, not really alive. And how about me? What was it the guy on the Common had said the other day, his chin resting on the Volkswagen like some grotesque John the Baptist? You're missing a lot of things in the world.
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Book description
A young adult novel set in a parochial school. Jerry Renault does not want to participate in the school's chocolate sales. The headmaster, who has reasons of his own to want the sale to be successful, calls in the school's gang and asks them to put pressure on Jerry to make him conform. The results are catastrophic.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375829873, Paperback)

Does Jerry Renault dare to disturb the universe? You wouldn't think that his refusal to sell chocolates during his school's fundraiser would create such a stir, but it does; it's as if the whole school comes apart at the seams. To some, Jerry is a hero, but to others, he becomes a scapegoat--a target for their pent-up hatred. And Jerry? He's just trying to stand up for what he believes, but perhaps there is no way for him to escape becoming a pawn in this game of control; students are pitted against other students, fighting for honor--or are they fighting for their lives? In 1974, author Robert Cormier dared to disturb our universe when this book was first published. And now, with a new introduction by the celebrated author, The Chocolate War stands ready to shock a new group of teen readers.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:28:12 -0400)

(see all 8 descriptions)

A high school freshman discovers the devastating consequences of refusing to join in the school's annual fund raising drive and arousing the wrath of the school bullies.

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